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Harper, Ben

Ben Harper

1969—

Singer, songwriter

Singer-songwriter Ben Harper came into the national spotlight in the 1990s as a retro 1960s-type folksinger, with songs such as "Like a King," which protested the Rodney King beating while referring at the same time to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also appeared onstage singing his own adaptation of Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise" without accompaniment, with his fist raised in the air. It soon became evident that Harper could do more than write earnest protest songs and strum an acoustic guitar, however. In the years since the release of his first album, Harper has been called the heir to Bob Marley as well as Jimi Hendrix. He has performed quiet and reverent gospel songs, covered hard-rocking tunes by Led Zeppelin, and played 1970s funk, as well as acoustic blues. Harper's versatility has become a hallmark of his powerful career. "The fact that I even exist in the record industry is outrageous, because everyone said I couldn't do it," Harper related to John Kreicbergs of Pitch-Weekly. "All the labels said, ‘No, it's not this, it's not that, it's not the other thing.’ But man, I've been doing it so wrong for so long, it's now become a style."

Grew Up Surrounded by Music

Harper was born October 28, 1969, in Pomona, California, and was raised in the Inland Empire region 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It is no wonder that Harper is able to draw from so many sources for his musical inspiration. His grandparents Charles and Dorothy Chase opened a music store in 1958 called the Claremont Folk Music Center. His grandfather played the lute and his grandmother played the guitar. Harper's parents were also musically inclined. His mother, Ellen, sang and played guitar while his father, Leonard, played the drums. Harper grew up in an environment saturated with many different types of music as well as books and different instruments from all over the world. When he was a teenager Harper listened to hip-hop, but his musical compass had already been set: he would play the music that he had grown up with, American roots music.

In his late teens Harper began to drift away from rap music and move toward the roots of today's popular music: the blues. He began to play Robert Johnson and Son House, key figures in the formation of the Delta Blues tradition from the 1920s. It was this reverence for the old traditional forms of music that led him to his trademark sound, which comes from playing bottleneck slide guitar.

Harper told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player about the influence of the early blues masters on his development as an artist: "I'd play those records at night, and then I'd go to school and hear them in my mind. The music that I was brought up with puts me in a trance, and that's the channel to the spirit of my music. I woodshedded on the bottleneck for years, putting in hours and hours a day to where morning would turn to night. I did that from the time I was 18 to 20. I was really trying to learn Robert Johnson tunes…Mississippi John Hurt just hit me like a truck, and that was something I had to play and be a part of. Then Taj Mahal called me up."

Harper had been playing acoustic blues sets in and around Los Angeles from the time he was 16 years old. At one of his shows, blues legend Taj Mahal noticed the serious young man playing the lap slide guitar and invited him on tour. In 1992 Harper appeared on the television show Austin City Limits as part of Mahal's band and collaborated with him on the soundtrack for The Drinking Gourd, a biography of Harriet Tubman. But Harper continued to play mostly the small local coffee shops with his vintage Weissenborn guitar, a completely hollow instrument handmade in the 1920s by Herman Weissenborn. Harper's childhood friend and producer J. P. Plunier was able to arrange meetings with Los Angeles record companies on the strength of the buzz surrounding "Like a King," but Harper's protest song scared some record executives away. In an article on the website of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Harper told Randy Grimmett about his meeting with the head of Virgin Records: "We were advised not to play ‘Like a King’ because it made the other A&R people nervous. So, of course, we get to the meeting and it's the first song I play. It turned out to be the song he liked most."

From that meeting Harper and Plunier received money to make a six-song demo, which turned into Harper's first album, 1994's Welcome to the Cruel World. The acoustic-based album was very different from the music that dominated the airwaves in the last gasp of the grunge era. But it was exactly that community that was most attracted to Harper's music. He and his band, The Innocent Criminals, began a marathon tour playing solo shows and warming up at the concerts of more well-known acts.

Gained Popularity and Grew Artistically

Harper told Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers of Acoustic Guitar magazine about one of his typical early shows: "I'll never forget opening up for P. J. Harvey—she invited us to tour with her. I'd sit down with an acoustic Weissenborn in front of 12-year-old girls with black eyeliner packed in the front row, looking up at me going, ‘What in the hell is he playing?’ But by the third or fourth song, the heads would start to nod, and then it would be on, you know. We never got stoned or anything like that—not yet."

It was during this ceaseless touring that the band worked on material for Harper's next release, 1995's Fight for Your Mind. Harper's song "Look Like Gold" also garnered some radio airtime. The record also yielded a two-year worldwide tour that found Harper traveling the globe to spread his music. Harper and his band toured throughout the United States and also in Europe and places like Turkey and New Zealand. While on the road Harper wrote material for his next album, which was released in 1997 and called The Will to Live. This record proved to be somewhat of a departure for Harper, as it featured a harder, more electric sound, especially on the record's single, "Faded," which featured a grinding electric guitar over Harper's hushed vocals. Harper was now playing with the heavyweights of the music industry such as Pearl Jam, Dave Mathews Band, and the Fugees, as well as blues and soul icons like John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles. He headlined at the HORDE Festival and played at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival.

At a Glance …

Born on October 28, 1969, in Pomona, CA; son of Leonard and Ellen Harper; married Joanna (divorced 2001); married Laura Dern, 2005; children: Charles, daughter Harris (first marriage); Ellery and Jaya (second marriage).

Career : Singer-songwriter, 1990s-Virgin Records, recording artist, 1994-; Inland Emperor Records, record label founder, 2001-.

Awards: Grammy Award, for Traditional Soul Gospel Album, 2004, for There Will Be a Light (with the Blind Boys of Alabama).

Addresses: Web—www.benharper.net.

It was this variety of influences that led to the next album, Burn to Shine, which was released in 1999. On this record Harper fully spread his musical wings, showing his quiet spiritual side in "Two Hands of a Prayer," and from there going to the light and playful "Steal My Kisses," which attracted significant radio airplay. He went all electric on the album's title track and on "Forgiven," and ventured into the realms of reggae, soul, and even ragtime jazz on "Suzie Blue." Harper told Rodgers of Acoustic Guitar about his musical progression: "I do have to say that playing and expressing myself on electrics of late is renewing my focus and enthusiasm and excitement about acoustics. If I played only acoustic for my entire life, I would get bored. So for my own musical growth, I need to venture out into other worlds of music and sound."

Remained Committed to Music and Performing

Harper's versatility was showcased on 2001's Live from Mars, a two-disc concert recording. One disc features his acoustic music, including a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," and the other disc features his more hard-edged music. Though Live from Mars was met with critical acclaim, Harper's life took a turn from the touring and recording cycle that he had known for the past six years. Harper's name began to appear in the gossip columns as much as it did in the music section of the newspapers. Late in 2001 it was reported that Harper had divorced his wife, Joanna, and bought a house in Los Angeles with actress Laura Dern. The couple married in 2005.

In the early 2000s Harper took time to found his own record label—Inland Emperor Records. His first artist, who had also appeared on selected recordings throughout Harper's four studio albums, was Patrick Brayer, the man who had given Harper his first paid gig. Brayer was the man who organized the Starvation Café series of concerts. The local concert promoter paid the stunned 16-year-old Harper half of the gate, which at that time was $75.

Harper enjoyed a growing fan base as he continued touring and recording, releasing a new album each year from 2003. In 2004 he collaborated with the gospel quartet, the Blind Boys of Alabama, to produce the Grammy-Award-winning album There Will Be a Light, and recorded Live at the Apollo with them on tour. Though his record sales increased dramatically since 1997, with his 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun reaching number seven on the Billboard charts, he remained focused his ability to perform his music live. He even tried to translate the power of live performance to his 2007 studio album, Lifeline; Harper and his band the Innocent Criminals gathered in a Paris recording studio immediately following an extensive tour to record the album in just seven days. Harper explained the benefit of recording in such a manner to Jonathan Cohen of Billboard.com: "I had always wanted to make a record directly coming off of a tour. It just makes sense. You've got all your best equipment and your musical abilities are never as sharp or as heightened as when you've been consistently on the road."

Harper's obsession with perfecting his music revealed itself as his ultimate goal in interviews over the years. Harper had told Lisa Wilton of the Calgary Sun in 2000: "I'll never be a rock star and I'll never care to be. It doesn't interest me. It's not me being a rock star, it's me being perceived as a rock star. There's a difference. I feel no physical, spiritual, psychological or egotistical connection to that term at all. My commitment and discipline is in writing songs and playing them well live." Even as the crowds thronging to see his live performances swelled and his popularity, especially in France and Australia, approached "superstar status," according to BBC Radio, Harper remained true to his word: his music remained his focus, not his fame.

Selected discography

Albums

Pleasure and Pain, Cardas Records, 1992.

Welcome to the Cruel World, Virgin Records, 1994.

Fight for Your Mind, Virgin Records, 1995.

The Will to Live, Virgin Records, 1997.

Burn to Shine, Virgin Records, 1999.

Live from Mars, Virgin Records, 2001.

Diamonds on the Inside, Virgin Records, 2003.

There Will Be a Light, Virgin Records, 2004.

Live at the Apollo, Virgin Records, 2005.

Both Sides of the Gun, Virgin Records, 2006.

Lifeline, Virgin Records, 2007.

Sources

Periodicals

Calgary Sun, August 22, 2000.

Guitar Player, September, 1997.

PitchWeekly, June 5, 2003.

New York Post, 2002.

New York Times, June 18, 2007, p. E1.

Voice (London, England), March 22-26, 2006, p. 6.

Washington Post, September 12, 2006, p. C14.

On-line

"Awards for World Music 2007: Ben Harper," BBC Radio,www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/worldmusic/a4wm-2007/2007_ben_harper.shtml (July 23, 2007). Ben Harper, www.benharper.net (July 10, 2007).

"Ben Harper Sends Out a ‘Lifeline’ in August," Billboard.com,www.billboard.com/bbcom/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003581298 (July 23, 2007).

"Ben Harper: Will = Power," American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, www.ascap.com/musicbiz/harper.html (July 23, 2007).

"Next Generation Blues," Acoustic Guitar, www.acousticguitar.com/issues/ag88/CoverStory.shtml (July 22, 2007).

"Talking Head," Perth Now,www.news.com.au/perthnow/story/0,21598,21440848-5005381,00.html (July 23, 2007).

Other

Pleasure and Pain (documentary film), by Danny Clinch, 2000.

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Harper, Ben 1969–

Ben Harper 1969

Musician

At a Glance

Selected discography

Sources

Singer-songwriter Ben Harper came into the national spotlight as a retro 1960s-type folksinger, with songs such as Like a King, which protested the Rodney King beating while referring at the same time to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also appeared onstage singing his own adaptation of Maya Angelous And Still I Rise without accompaniment, with his fist raised in the air. It soon became evident that Harper could do more than write earnest protest songs with just an acoustic guitar. In the years since the release of his first album, Harper has been called the heir to Bob Marley as well as Jimi Hendrix. On a recent album, Live From Mars, Harper performed quiet and reverent gospel songs and covered hard-rocking Led Zeppelins Whole Lotta Love. Harpers versatility has become a hallmark of his short but powerful career.

Harper was was October 28, 1969, in Pomona, California, and was raised in the Inland Empire region 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It is no wonder that Harper is able to draw from so many sources for his musical inspiration. His grandparents Charles and Dorothy Chase opened a music store in 1958 called the Claremont Folk Music Center. His grandfather played the lute and his grandmother played the guitar. Harp- ers parents were also musically inclined. His mother, Ellen, sang and played guitar while his father, Leonard, played the drums. Harper grew up in an environment saturated with many different types of music as well as books and different instruments from all over the world. When he was a teenager Harper listened to hip-hop, but his musical compass had already been sethe would play the music that he had grown up withAmerican roots music.

In his late teens Harper began to drift away from rap music and move toward the roots of todays popular musicthe blues. He began to play Robert Johnson and Son House, key figures in the formation of the Delta Blues tradition from the 1920s. It was this reverence for the old traditional forms of music that led him to his trademark sound, which comes from playing bottleneck slide guitar.

Harper told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player about the influence of the early blues masters on his development as an artist: Id play those records at night, and then Id go to school and hear them in my mind. The music that I was brought up with puts me in a trance, and thats the channel to the spirit of my music. I woodshedded on the bottleneck for years, putting in hours and hours

At a Glance

Born Ben Harper on October 28, 1969, in Pomona, CA; son of Leonard and Ellen Harper; divorced; children; C. J. and Harris.

Career: Singer-songwriter. Performed on tour with Taj Mahal, 1992; collaborated with Mahal on soundtrack for The Drinking Gourd, a biography of Harriet Tubman; toured United States as both solo and warm-up act with his band The Innocent Criminals, 1994-95; toured United States, Europe, and New Zealand, 1995-97; recording artist for Virgin Records, 1994-01; headlined at HORDE Festival and Montreux Jazz Festival; founded own record label, Inland Emperor Records, 2001-.

Addresses: Office Inland Emperor Records, 1304 North Highland Avenue, #319, Hollywood, CA, 90028.

a day to where morning would turn to night. I did that from the time I was 18 to 20. I was really trying to learn Robert Johnson tunes Mississippi John Hurt just hit me like a truck, and that was something I had to play and be a part of. Then Taj Mahal called me up.

Harper had been playing acoustic blues sets in and around Los Angeles from the time he was 16 years old. At one of his shows, blues legend Taj Mahal noticed the serious young man playing the lap slide guitar and invited him on tour. In 1992 Harper appeared on the television show Austin City Limits as part of Mahals band and collaborated with him on the soundtrack for The Drinking Gourd, a biography of Harriet Tubman. But Harper continued to play mostly the small local coffee shops with his vintage Weissenborn guitar, a completely hollow instrument handmade in the 1920s by Herman Weissenborn. Harpers childhood friend and producer J. P. Plunier was able to arrange meetings with Los Angeles record companies on the strength of the buzz surrounding Like a King, but Harpers protest song scared some record executives away. In an article on the website of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Harper told Randy Grimmett about his meeting with the head of Virgin Records: We were advised not to play Like a King because it made the other A&R people nervous. So, of course, we get to the meeting and its the first song I play. It turned out to be the song he liked most.

From that meeting Harper and Plunier received money to make a six-song demo, which turned into Harpers first album, 1994s Welcome to the Cruel World. The acoustic-based album was very different from the music that dominated the airwaves in the last gasp of the grunge era. But it was exactly that community that was most attracted to Harpers music. He and his band, The Innocent Criminals, began a marathon tour playing solo shows and warming up at the concerts of more well-known acts.

Harper told Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers of Acoustic Guitar magazine about one of his typical early shows: Ill never forget opening up for P. J. Harveyshe invited us to tour with her. Id sit down with an acoustic Weissenborn in front of 12-year-old girls with black eyeliner packed in the front row, looking up at me going, What in the hell is he playing? But by the third or fourth song, the heads would start to nod, and then it would be on, you know. We never got stoned or anything like thatnot yet.

It was during this ceaseless touring that the band worked on material for Harpers next release, 1995s Fight For Your Mind. Harpers song Look Like Gold also garnered some radio airtime. The record also yielded a two-year worldwide tour that found Harper travelling the globe to spread his music. Harper and his band toured throughout the United States and also in Europe and places like Turkey and New Zealand. While on the road Harper wrote material for his next album, which was released in 1997 and called The Will To Live. This record proved to be somewhat of a departure for Harper, as it featured a harder, more electric sound, especially on the records single, Faded, which featured a grinding electric guitar over Harpers hushed vocals. Harper was now playing with the heavyweights of the music industry such as Pearl Jam, Dave Mathews Band, and the Fugees, as well as blues and soul icons like John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles. He headlined at the HORDE Festival and played at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival. It was this variety of influences that led to the next album, Burn to Shine, which was released in 1999. On this record Harper fully spread his musical wings, showing his quiet spiritual side in Two Hands Of A Prayer, and from there going to the light and playful Steal My Kisses, which attracted significant radio airplay. He went all electric on the albums title track and on Forgiven, and ventured into the realms of reggae, soul, and even ragtime jazz on Suzie Blue. Harper told Rodgers of Acoustic Guitar about his musical progression: I do have to say that playing and expressing myself on electrics of late is renewing my focus and enthusiasm and excitement about acoustics. If I played only acoustic for my entire life, I would get bored. So for my own musical growth, I need to venture out into other worlds of music and sound.

Harpers versatility was showcased on 2001s Live From Mars, a two-disc concert recording. One disc features his acoustic music, including a soulful rendition of Marvin Gayes Sexual Healing, and the other disc features his more hard-edged music. Though Live From Mars was met with critical acclaim, Harpers life took a turn from the touring and recording cycle that he had known for the past six years. Harpers name began to appear in the gossip columns as much as it did in the music section of the newspapers. Late in 2001 it was reported that Harper had divorced his wife, Joanna, and bought a house in Los Angeles with actress Laura Dern. In 2002 The New York Post reported that Harper would be dropped from EMIs financially troubled Virgin record label in the midst of recording his next album. Harper also took time to found his own record labelInland Emperor Records. His first artist, who had also appeared on selected recordings throughout Harpers four studio albums, was Patrick Brayer, the man who had given Harper his first paid gig. Brayer was the man who organized the Starvation Café series of concerts. The local concert promoter paid the stunned 16-year-old Harper half of the gate, which at that time was $75.

Whatever direction Harpers next project takes, he will remain true to his roots. He told Lisa Wilton of the Calgary Sun: Ill never be a rock star and Ill never care to be. It doesnt interest me. Its not me being a rock star, its me being perceived as a rock star. Theres a difference. I feel no physical, spiritual, psychological or egotistical connection to that term at all. My com mitment and discipline is in writing songs and playing them well live.

Selected discography

Welcome To The Cruel World, Virgin Records, 1994.

Fight For Your Mind, Virgin Records, 1995.

The Will To Live, Virgin Records, 1997.

Burn To Shine, Virgin Records, 1999.

Live From Mars, Virgin Records, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Calgary Sun, August 22, 2000

Guitar Player, September, 1997

On-line

www.benharper.com/bio/

Acoustic Guitar, www.acousticguitar.com/issues/ag88/CoverStory.shtml

American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, www.ascap.com/musicbiz/harper.html

Ben Harper, www.benharper.net

Michael J. Watkins

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Harper, Ben

Ben Harper

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

Early Affinity for the Blues

Taj Mahal Takes Notice

Releases Debut Album

Selected discography

Sources

On the strength of only two albumsand successful concert tours undertaken in support of those albumsBen Harper emerged during the mid-1990s as a musical artist of notable talent and vision. In certain respects, his quick ascent was an unlikely one, for as Acoustic Guitar contributor Ben Elder noted, Harpers music defies easy categorization because of its diverse sources: the Carter family, Woody Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, and a melting pot of acoustic blues, reggae, country, hip-hop, rock, and classical styles.

But while Harpers music eludes classification, there is no mistaking the moral urgency that burns through many of his songs. The passion of Harpers socially conscious songwriting stems from his apprehension about Americas spiritual direction. Everything is so out of control, Harper told Pulse! writer Dan Ouellette. I want our mothers to be able to walk the streets and be safe. Instead of learning from history, whether its slavery or the Holocaust, were allowing history to repeat itself.

Harper was born on October 28, 1969, and raised in the Inland Empire region of California, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. His grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, were the founders of Claremonts Folk Music Center. The center, which opened in 1958, is a store and museum that includes a wide range of music, books, art, and instruments for music enthusiasts, and it was an important place during Harpers childhood years. The stores myriad totems of musical beauty and genius contributed greatly to his early affinity for music. Harpers parents (who have since divorced) were musically inclined as well. Leonard Harper, his father, was a skilled percussionist, while his mother, Ellen, was a singer and guitarist.

Early Affinity for the Blues

Harper thus grew up in an environment of passion about music. It wouldnt take long until most of his waking moments became occupied. Surrounded by a forest of musical instruments, paraphernalia, and recordings, he devoted increasing amounts of his time to studying and playing the blues, a musical genre of which he grew particularly fond. Id play those records at night, Harper recalled in an interview with Jas Obrecht for Guitar Player. Then Id goto school and hear them in my mind. Id zone out and the teacher would rap on the desk and say, Hey! What are you doing? And I couldnt very well tell her what I was hearing and feeling. When I got to about 16, I was able to express myself on the slide guitar.

The fledgling musician immersed himself in the recordings of such country blues giants as Robert Johnson

For the Record

Born October 28, 1969, in California; raised in Inland Empire region of California; son of Leonard (a percussionist) and Ellen (a singer and guitarist) Harper.

Toured with Taj Mahal, 1992-93; signed with Virgin Records, 1993; released debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World, 1994; released Fight for Your Mind, 1995.

Addresses: Record company Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

and Blind Willie Johnson, teaching himself to play the slide guitar. (Harper does not read music.) Still, he was not oblivious to the more contemporary musical contributions of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Taj Mahal, and others, and he counts these artists among his biggest influences. As Harpers proficiency on the guitar grew, he began to experiment with different sounds and techniques, searching for the combination that suited him best. I started playing lap-style, he told Elder, and it really freed me up. I started really being able to say what I had to say.

Shortly thereafter, Harper turned to the Weissenborn guitar, an acoustic Hawaiian model that had been popular more than a half-century ago. When he heard the unique resonant qualities of the classic guitars sound, he knew that his search for a suitable instrument to display his musical vision was over. The Weissenborn is the sound that is in me, he told Obrecht. Nothing else can channel the spirit of my music. I love everything about them I own quite a few Weissen-borns, and each one definitely has its own voice.

Taj Mahal Takes Notice

Harper began to perform his music at local venues, and he acquired a small following. But it was not until he attracted the attention of blues artist Taj Mahal that his career began its ascent. Taj Mahal recalls that he was taking an afternoon nap before a scheduled show at Claremont when he was awakened by the shivering notes of Harpers slide playing downstairs. There was something about this sound that you only hear every now and then in a slide player, he said. Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I came downstairs to see who it was. These guys thought they were disturbing me. I said, The only thing that disturbs me is how come we dont hear anybody else play like you!

The two musicians quickly established a rapport, and Mahal convinced Harper to join him on his concert tour, which included an appearance on Austin City Limits. They then collaborated on the soundtrack for The Drinking Gourd, a documentary on the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. It was around this time that Harper met J. P. Plunier, who became his manager. Plunier convinced Virgin Records to sign the young slide guitarist.

Releases Debut Album

Early 1994 saw the release of Welcome to the Cruel World, Harpers debut effort. The acoustic-based album immediately triggered a swell of appreciation from critics, who lauded his smoky singing voice and his haunting slide guitar work. Some reviewers found his lyrics overly simplistic at times, but others contended that they packed a clear and uncompromising social wallop, according to Elder. Songs such as Dont Take That Attitude to Your Grave, Like a King, and How Many Miles Must We March provide powerful warnings about Americas fraying social fabric. Conversely, such tracks as Ill Rise, which features lyrics adapted from a Maya Angelou poem, champion themes of spiritual hope and triumph over adversity.

Harpers concern with issues of social justice and race relations are evident throughout Welcome to the Cruel World, a fact that his white mother attributes in part to his upbringing. Noting that Harpers father is black, she contends that her sons keen social consciousness is due in part to his mixed-race heritage. Indeed, Harper admits that his exposure to both black and white bigotry during his childhood helped inform his views.

In 1995 Harper released Fight for Your Mind, a worthy successor to his debut album. It features a greater variety of musical textures and electronic amplification (although the album is still anchored by Harpers slide guitar work) and another batch of incisive social commentary in such songs as Excuse Me Mr., People Lead, and Oppression. He subsequently embarked on tour dates with such diverse musical talents as Pearl Jam, PJ Harvey, John Lee Hooker, and Gil Scott-Heron.

Harper, who is well aware that his music does not easily fit into any single section of the 1990s regimented radio environment, remains a little amazed at the quick success he has experienced. But he makes it clear that his success is secondary; being true to his musical vision is his primary goal. Music comes straight from the heart, and peoples hearts are in their eyes, he told Elder. You can look right at a man and know if hes about musicor if hes just a pirate.

Selected discography

Welcome to the Cruel World, Virgin, 1994.

Fight for Your Mind, Virgin, 1995.

Sources

Acoustic Guitar, February 1996.

Billboard, November 11, 1995.

Guitar Player, June 1994, p. 65; December 1995, p. 27.

Pulse!, June 1994, p. 34.

Vibe, June/July 1994.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Virgin Records promotional material, 1995.

Kevin Hillstrom

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Harper, Ben

BEN HARPER

Born: Pomona, California, 28 October 1969

Genre: Rock

Best-selling album since 1990: Burn to Shine (1999)

Hit songs since 1990: "Steal My Kisses"


Arestless singer/songwriter, Ben Harper has created original, distinctively American fusions by drawing on blues, folk-rock, country, reggae, and gospel. As a child, Harper often hung out at his grandparents' record store in Claremont, California. There he got an eclectic musical education listening to Little Feat's blues, the Allman Brothers' rock, Otis Redding's soul, and Stevie Wonder's R&B. Surrounded by the sounds of his heroes, he decided he wanted to pursue a music career, too.

He was discovered by Taj Mahal, the world-beat blues fusionist who saw his own eclecticism and curiosity reflected in Harper. Signed to Virgin Records in 1992, Harper started out as a twangy, acoustic-heavy folk balladeer. He even had a signature instrument: the Weissenhorn, a 1920s slide guitar played in the lap. Despite the fact that he had to play it seated, his lyrical fire and soulful vocals worked audiences into a frenzy, and he became an underground favorite among folk-music lovers, activists, and urban sophisticates.

His debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World (1994), makes ample use of his slide guitar. The album begins with a couple of acoustic ballads, "The Three of Us" and "Whipping Boy," but catches fire with the up-tempo "Breakin' Down," where his sweet falsetto channels Aaron Neville. He reveals his liberal politics on the midtempo "Don't Take That Attitude to the Grave," delivering fire and brimstone to law-and-order conservatives. "You're gonna reap what you sow," he scolds. But he is more effective at delivering honey than fire"Waiting on an Angel" is pure seduction, a waltz where he uses his gentle baritone to convincingly plead to a lover. While not a big seller in the United States, the album created some buzz in Europe, where Harper appeared on bills with John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, and Neneh Cherry.

His next effort, Fight for Your Mind (1995), is one of those critically acclaimed, commercially ignored efforts that new fans rediscover years later, after the artist has finally broken into the mainstream. Here he maintains his acoustic framework, but adds some energetic blues and a powerful rhythm section, featuring the nineteen-year-old drummer Oliver Charles. The album kicks off with the political "Oppression," another slide-guitar-centered song with a meandering melody and quietly determined lyrics: "oppression / you shall learn to fear me." Harper picks up the energy on the swampy, shuffling "Ground on Down," where he turns his Weissenhorn into an unlikely funk instrument. He ventures even further into rootsy, Delta blues on "Gold to Me," where he conjures the genre's raw pain, pleading for redemption. He again shines on the ballads, singing soft and low and somehow making time stop on the deceptively up-tempo "Another Lonely Day." Almost dropping to a whisper on "Please Me Like You Want To," he sings, "you're with somebody / but you don't want to be."

Always on the move, Harper veered into Hendrix-inspired alt-rock for The Will to Live (1997). "Faded" demonstrates Harper's lingering awkwardness with heavier music, as his subtle vocals don't match the amped-up sound. Recalling the country-blues fusions of his mentor Taj Mahal, Harper combines a Western-swing two-step with bluesman vocals on "Homeless Child," which also features Harper's spot-on falsettos. The more electric, rock tendencies of The Will to Live helped push it to number eighty-nine on the Billboard 200 album chart, making it his first chart album in the United States. The album also marks the debut of his regular backing band, the Innocent Criminals.

Though his albums were not big moneymakers, Virgin continued to support him without the usual label meddling; his critical acclaim represented a feather in the label's cap, as did his road-warrior's willingness to perform 200 to 300 dates a year.

The efforts finally paid off commercially with Burn to Shine, a more confident sequel to The Will to Live. He garnered significant Top 40 airplay with the single "Steal My Kisses," a cute ditty that does not dilute Harper's essence, combining modern funk rhythms with stripped-down arrangements. The rest of the album is also more commercial. The rocker "Alone" uses Red Hot Chili Peppers-like bass and an ominous, minor-key melody. "Less" is a bombastic, cymbal-heavy rock anthem that despairs over a jaded, demanding partner. He flirts with hard rock on "Two Hands of a Prayer" and "Please Bleed." While fans who expected him to continue his roots-revival ways forever were disappointed, Harper's many facets and interests kept him from settling on any style for too long.

Harper summed up the best of his 1990s material with a double-live set Live from Mars in 2001. That year he fathered a child with his actress girlfriend Laura Dern (her first, his third). He was also the subject of a low-budget documentary, Pleasure and Pain (2002), co-directed by the music photographer Danny Clinch.

Diamonds on the Inside (2003) displays his most ambitious world-music vibe yet. The African spiritual "Picture of Jesus" features the famed South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. "With My Own Two Hands" is Marley-esque reggae, while the ethereal, almost prayerful "When She Believes" uses a Caribbean-style accordion. The album did not produce any more crossover hits, but no one could fault its creative heft or inspired fusions.

While flying below the pop-star radar, Harper has delighted music connoisseurs with his ability to make modern, relevant pop informed by multicultural American and world traditions.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

The Will to Live (Virgin, 1997); Burn to Shine (Virgin, 1999); Live from Mars (Virgin, 2001); Diamonds on the Inside (Virgin, 2003).

ramiro burr

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"Harper, Ben." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Harper, Ben." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/harper-ben